Big Power, Superpower, Selfish Power: No Saints, Only Sinners

Let me extend a warm welcome to all of you on behalf of the organisers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Rwanda, the Rwanda Convention Bureau, ORF America—a new institution in Washington DC that we built during the pandemic—and, of course, ORF India. We are delighted to be here with all of you.

Personally, I am thrilled to be back in Rwanda. I can actually share with you that the number one item on my to-do list, once the pandemic allowed us to travel, was coming back to Kigali. It is immensely satisfying to reconnect with everybody again. I hope over the next few days, we will exchange notes, renew friendships, and shape new partnerships.

By way of introduction to what we plan to do over the next two and a half days, I thought I could take a few notes out of my pandemic diary. On how I was observing the world and assessing it even as we were isolated, quarantined, separated, and sometimes hopeless and helpless, I found that there were three questions that I grappled with.

First and foremost, we must question global governance as it exists today—its institutions and its leadership. When the pandemic hit, if we are really honest, all of us in this room were left to our own devices. There was no cavalry coming to save us, we had to do it ourselves. At the peak of the pandemic, it was every human for themselves. Countries were isolated, societies were quarantined, and global governance was missing in action. We must promise ourselves that next time we will do better and efforts towards that must start today.

What is the point of investing in global institutions, if not for their reassuring presence during these times? I am not suggesting that we need to do away with these institutions. In fact, I urge all of us to rethink, re-invest, and reshape how they work, who they serve, and for what purpose they are designed. And that must be something high on our agenda, as thinkers, as practitioners of policy, and as global citizens. So the quality of global governance has to be the first question we respond to.

We all know that the pandemic was a great leveler. There were no big powers, there were no superpowers, there were no great powers. There were selfish powers who dominated the world. New York, London, Paris, Cape Town, Delhi, name the city, everyone was devastated by the pandemic. Higher spending on health care, greater medical systems, better facilities, all amounted to nothing. We must, therefore, re-think our health architecture—programmes that are meant to preserve lives and protect ourselves must be re-examined. Countries that had spent billions of dollars on building medical capabilities were struggling to respond, as were much poorer nations. Perhaps, instead of spending money on prestige medical projects, a more equitable distribution could have prevented the spread of the virus in geographies that were underprepared and had low infrastructure capabilities.

The second clear reality, or rather virtual reality, was the digitalisation of our societies. No policy by any political leader, no matter how charismatic, could have created the rate of digitalisation that the pandemic was able to do. It was outstanding and astounding at the same time. Outstanding, because we were able to connect; we were able to earn a livelihood; we were able to remain engaged. We were able to, in some sense, continue as a community, as a society. Astounding, simply because the institutions to protect these digital spaces, which are now so precious, do not exist.

We saw the digitalisation of everything. Individuals exist online, yet they live offline. They connect to their near and dear ones offline, but communities are built online. Countries are now digital nations yet, we see wars crop up to defend lines on a map time and again.

We must ask: Have our politics and policies realigned themselves to the emergence of this digital society? Are we recognising the digital arena as an independent domain, akin to a new geography, that requires its own set of rules, principles, ethics, and governance? Or are we still seeing this as an instrument attached to our real world? Depending on how we assess our digital reality, we will come up with responses that may be sub-optimal or ambitious…or perhaps the ones that are most appropriate. This is a debate we must have about the digital societies that the pandemic has, in many ways, incubated.

Next, we are witnessing a reversal to parochialism, tribalism, and selfish behaviour. We have seen nations cannibalise and weaponise production capabilities for their own selfish requirements, hijack medical shipments and more. There were again no big powers or super powers—just selfish ones. There were no saints, only shades of sinners, and all of us were implicated by these actions. This self-serving behaviour was, in turn, endorsed by national media and demanded by electorates on the streets; which begs the question: How do we rectify this?

We have also witnessed a recession of globalism. We are more interconnected, but we trust less, we care less. We are less empathetic. We can’t wish away the rise of these emotions, sub-nationalist and nationalist. But we also can’t ignore the benefits and the protection that an interconnected world provides us. Who are the next generation of leaders who will rebuild globalisation in a different format?

We don’t need to invest in perverse dependencies. What we need is smart, interconnected resilience. The globalisation of tomorrow must be very different to the texture of yesterday. I must reiterate the point I began with: Community is cavalry.

When it comes to our development needs—education, health, skills, and other social sectors, the pandemic has pushed us into a do-it-yourself mode. While we must seek partnerships, we must build networks, and we must create relationships, we must first build ourselves and our capacities. Sharing individual journeys, group experiences, and learnings of countries is one way to strengthen this process of investing in ourselves and our community.

The Kigali Global Dialogue is an attempt to build that community. We are not going to give you the silver bullet to solve all problems. Nor will the dialogue offer a prescription for a better tomorrow. But we are here to be your fellow humans on a journey that we will undertake together.

May you all enjoy the ride over the next two and a half days, and may we discover important lessons on the way. Thank you for joining us at this Dialogue.

Books / Papers, BRICS, China, COVID-19, Research

Stocktaking and Recommendations for Consolidation: Joint Academic Paper by ORF and RIS

As the BRICS passes through a crucial milestone of its existence, celebrating 15 years of its formation, this report examines the initiatives launched since inception and makes recommendations for consolidating and streamlining the agenda.

The BRICS remains a prominent grouping in the global governance architecture due to the individual influence of each member-state and the collective size of their economies. The confidence in BRICS from within and the perceptions outside the grouping are shaped by its successes in institution-building and resource mobilisation. The highlight of BRICS’s success is its strong focus on issues of financial stability and global governance reforms, particularly in areas related to macroeconomic stability. These are supplemented by attention to sustainable development issues backed by finance and technology.

The BRICS agenda has witnessed a steady expansion of its scope ever since its inception. During the initial years, the agenda was focused on responding to the trans-Atlantic financial crisis with a special focus on multilateralism, particularly the need to reform the international monetary and financial architecture. Subsequently, the BRICS established the New Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, two flagship financial initiatives that remain the biggest success stories of the plurilateral to date. Notably, with the outbreak of Covid19 in 2020, there has been a special focus on responding to the pandemic and coordinating recovery.

Given the expanding scope, there is a need for consolidation and streamlining of the BRICS agenda. This will help address structural deficiencies and facilitate the smooth coordination for building consensus on key issues. To realise these goals, a thorough review of the BRICS cooperation mechanisms is necessary. This joint academic study presents an assessment of the various tracks under the BRICS framework, such that the grouping can better pursue the collective agenda of economic cooperation and sustainable development.

The year 2021 has been significant, with the Indian presidency underscoring ‘BRICS@15: Intra-BRICS Cooperation for Continuity, Consolidation and Consensus’ as the theme. The aspect of ‘consolidation’ received special attention. The Indian presidency also helped in concretising several action areas that had remained dormant. A case in point is the Agriculture Research Platform proposed by India at the 2015 Ufa Summit with a memorandum of understanding signed during the Indian presidency in 2016. This was launched in the virtual format in 2021, again during India’s presidency.

India’s presidency of BRICS in 2021 has set a definite example for streamlining of the BRICS agenda. As the agenda consolidates, future presidencies will find room for emerging themes that require urgent attention. Consolidation does not always only mean weeding out weaker sprouts, but to have comprehensive approaches towards setting common goals so that even relatively weaker initiatives can be scaled with resources. A preliminary assessment of the initiatives launched by BRICS is presented in this report.

BRICS, Columns/Op-Eds

Article in the Indian Express: “The Africa Question”

by Samir Saran
12th of December 2012
Please find here the link to the original article.

It will be counterproductive for BRICS if South Africa’s chairmanship ends up representing the continent.

With the impending handover of the chairmanship of BRICS by India to South Africa, there is a flurry of activities in BRICS capitals, including a visit of a high-powered South African delegation to New Delhi. While there would be discussions on the modalities of the handover, the central focus must remain on the BRICS agenda.

If recent conversations with South African scholars are any indication, the country’s chairmanship of BRICS may be conditioned by a strong impulse to represent Africa. In two recent conferences in China, interventions by South African delegates on BRICS matters introduced a heavy dose of Africa, issues that currently engage the African Union and the state of the continent generally. In the run up to the 2013 BRICS summit, the country seems to be placing upon itself the onerous task of discovering and representing a unified African voice. While this has drawn criticism, it is also flawed in more ways than one and has the potential of undermining the progress so far.

The first problem is the inherent moral hazard. South Africa must not see its role as the voice of Africa at BRICS. It would be presumptuous and a number of African countries may take strong exception. And is it anyone’s case that it is only Africa that somehow needs a special relationship with BRICS? Home to half of the world’s poverty and any number of development and social challenges, South Asia may deserve such attention as well. Should India then be the voice of South Asia and represent the subcontinent? Surely, some South Asian countries would have a reason to challenge this. This can also be argued in the case of Brazil and South America, Russia and Eurasia, China and East Asia. Such ambassadorial roleplay for larger regions is dangerous and can weigh down the lithe and nimble platform that BRICS seeks to be.

On the other hand, almost every BRICS member has robust bilateral engagements with the continent. While the Chinese may be more recent partners to many African nations, India has both civilisational and contemporary ties. Many Indians are settled in Africa; India has maintained among the largest peacekeeping forces; and of course Indian businesses, much like their Chinese counterparts, are taking increasing interest in the continent. Brazil also has a fair constituency in Lusophone Africa. Africa’s immense resource wealth, and underdeveloped infrastructure, have attracted a large amount of commercial interest from Brazil. Hence, can the premise that South Africa represents Africa and is best positioned to serve its interests pass muster?

The second flaw with the “South Africa for Africa” formulation is that it misunderstands the reason for South Africa’s inclusion in the group. Only a rather naive (and linear) rationale will attach the responsibility for Africa to South Africa. While it is undeniable that one of the key reasons for the inclusion was to have a voice from the continent, the voice was meant to speak for itself alone. South Africa is an emerging economy that offers a unique perspective and adds value to BRICS by itself. It is counterproductive and self-defeating for a small club to allow proxy memberships.

The third and central weakness of this proposition is its lack of appreciation of the core BRICS objectives. It is indisputable that the purpose of this group is to offer a counter-narrative on global governance to the one scripted by the incumbents in the Western hemisphere. BRICS is not and must not become another “trade union” or voice of the “global opposition”. It is a club that allows these five nations to pitch their collective weight behind efforts to shape and change rules for the road, old and new, at the global high table. There is a lot at stake. The world is in flux and governance is being re-imagined, redefined and indeed renegotiated. BRICS allows each country an exponentially weightier presence while parleying with the incumbents. That must remain the group’s salience.

It is time for BRICS to ask themselves some blunt questions. Should the resources and time devoted by each country at this forum be invested in regional issues such as those important to Africa? Should the tensions and imperatives of South Asia find centrestage? Will it be in the interests of BRICS to be engaged with the problems of the South China Sea? Or should BRICS remain that unique proposition, where a group of emerging economies, with critical stake in the global future, create a platform for meaningfully engaging with the developed and developing countries on key issues?

There is no denying that South Africa will remain the continent’s economic powerhouse for the foreseeable future. It is also a veritable geographic fulcrum, which is viewed by some as a strategic node between Latin America and Asia. This gives South Africa a weight far greater than its military might or economic numbers. South Africa by itself completes BRICS. As the next summit draws closer, it must urgently conduct a strategic and realist re-evaluation of what it wants from BRICS against what is on offer.

The writer is senior fellow and vice president, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi